U Suck @ Grammer: Maybe You Don't?

Courtesy of my friend Ashley, whom frequent readers of the Boomstick know as my fellow grammar-lover/post-editor/topic-suggester for this column, I'm now aware of this excellent blog called "Painting the Grey Area" written by an articulate and self-effacing English teacher named Chandra.

Chandra authored a piece called, "Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People’s Grammar on the Internet."  A self-proclaimed "recovering grammar snob," Chandra makes an interesting and emotional appeal on behalf of the downtrodden dyslexics, the undereducated poor, the non-native English speakers, and -- in one hyperbolic hypothesis -- the child invalid hospitalized with a nameless disease that required him to miss each and every phonics class, all of whom now, despite their backgrounds, are avid internet commenters.

Chandra argues that when we pretentious jerks venture into internet-land and assault fellow commenters' grammar without regard to their circumstances, we are taking "an ignoble approach."  (She doesn't name names, but I assume this indicts Lamebook and the whole of the Cheezburger empire, maybe even including those awesome misspelled tattoo sites.)  She discusses some truly alarming statistics about adult literacy in developed countries and makes the Linguist's argument that language is perpetually changing and its formal rules are entirely arbitrary, anyway.  This is all true, of course, even the alarming part about how "many prescriptive rules were totally fabricated by Latin-centric snobs." (Link from the original post.)  There's a lot of snob-bashing going on over there.

So, Chandra making all these eloquent, purposeful points got me thinking about why poor grammar bothers some of us: why it bothers me, why it bothers my friend Ashley, and why it bothered Chandra up until -- and quite possibly despite -- this great post seeking greater self-awareness and sensitivity.    At first I posited that it was because I obsessively love writing.  Then I thought that maybe it's because a well-articulated argument can be so meaningful and persuasive; you can make people question their beliefs and take contradictory opinions to heart and experience empathy in a totally new way if you can phrase it just right.  (And, as a lawyer, I kind of have to believe in the power of really great, soul-clinching arguments.  We're always holding for the day that Mr. Smith Goes to the Blogosphere.)

But then I started thinking about the conclusions I draw when I see poor grammar.   It strikes me as sloppy and rude and disrespectful when a poster ignores basic fundamental tenets of English writing; it makes me less inclined to listen to them.   It's akin to lots of interpersonal interactions, but maybe best analogized to the delicate arena of the job interview: a person walks in to my office with a dynamite resume and a lot of good ideas, but if she shows up in dirty, sloppy, casual clothes, she won't get the job.  Certainly, on some level this is unfair: wouldn't you rather have the poorly-dressed genius than the put-together second-rater?  But it's also frequently and unavoidably true.  (For stuffy people like me at least; in Palo Alto I'm pretty sure it's the opposite.)

It's true because dressing professionally is a signal to a potential employer that you take something seriously, that you value something, and that you're willing to put in extra effort out of respect for yourself and your profession.  Certainly, how you dress is a superficial, mutable quality, and certainly a lot of lazy, unambitious dolts can appear impeccable in a suit.  But, dressing well is a sort of rebuttable presumption of ambition and work ethic and interest.  And dressing poorly may be similarly rebuttable, but nonetheless creates a first-impression of laziness and inattention and unwillingness.

So, too, I feel is grammar.  I give more credence and time and interest to a comment on the blog (this blog, any blog), that is capitalized and punctuated and spelled correctly.   I'm prone to ignore criticisms and observations when they are sloppily presented.  I, of course, have drawn the wrong conclusions about both.  But, when I put great efforts and edits and thesaurusing and hyperlinking and researching and reconsidering and rewriting into a blog post (even the dumb funny ones, y'all), and that post is criticized by someone in a manner that appears haphazard and impulsive and uneducated, I am less apt to think, "my goodness, this intelligent and discerning person certainly has valuable insights to offer me," and more likely to dismiss it into the universe of Yahoo! Answers.

But Chandra urged me to consider that laziness and disrespect may not be responsible for poor grammar.  It may be a host of other, unconsidered extenuating circumstances.  And I agree with her -- it might.  I also agree with her premise that it doesn't serve much of a function to comment on a mistake-riddled blog comment just to point out the errors, derail the conversation, and make absolutely certain that every other reader understands you're a tool.

Chandra got so much feedback (and so much criticism -- this grammar thing is really ingrained!), that she wrote two follow-up posts further analyzing and clarifying her position. (Read Part 2; read Part 3.)   In her follow-ups, she explained that despite her impassioned plea on behalf of extenuating circumstances and language-rule arbitrariness, she nonetheless understood that mastering traditional grammar and technical writing skills is tied to important real-world rewards.  As an English teacher, she explains to her students the value of an error-free resume and a well-written essay.  But the internet isn't a job interview, and it's important to remember that mean bloggy people can unknowingly retard the progress of the disadvantaged, struggling illiterate.  (And I'm not calling them "retards," you morons.)

Overall, Chandra's article is a welcome reminder to snobs like me that we'd all be better served by being less judgmental and hasty and conclusory, but it's not a recommendation that we throw up our hands and stop teaching the pillars of good writing (as arbitrary as those pillars may be).  So, maybe Chandra's point is really just more that she really hates internet trolls.   Because, yeah, trolls suck, and people who make comments on the internet are nasty and shallow and uninformed and probably ugly.  So, the conclusion is: try to write good, y'all, but don't be dicks on the internet.  You can start with leaving some love in my comments.
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Matt!
AUTHOR
February 11, 2013 at 8:29 AM delete

So, I painstakingly typed a brilliant comment, but my iPhone ate it (100% grammatical correct, I should add, despite being input on a shitty iPhone screen). That comment was amazing--like whatever was in that valise that Hemingway lost on the train platform. In any event, teaching Freshman comp has taught me that grammatical ability does not correlate to intelligence. And in fact, our ass-backwards failure of a public school system often doesn't teach or reward good grammar. I'll have a student who sounds like Noam Chomsky in discussion, who then turns in a paper that reads like...I dunno, whatever the dumb counterpart to Noam Chomsky is (Kanye's Twitter account?)

Those of us who know grammar forget that we know it because we studied hard, read a shit ton, and wrote enough that eventually we figured it out. Even professional writers need professional editors to get their grammar, punctuation, and usage in shape, and those editors need other editors to catch what they missed. And still, there are errors (or at least one) in every published book I've ever read, from some back alley small press poetry chapbook to the New York edition of Henry James.

Prescriptive grammar rules tend to lose, but focusing on the vitality and function of the language tends to win. Still, there are occasional grammar moments that make me want to facepalm with a machete in my hand...

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Alison
AUTHOR
February 11, 2013 at 9:44 AM delete

So, this comment was pretty brilliant, and if it's the salvaged remains of an even better, longer comment, I'm kind of glad you didn't get to post it because shit like this makes me look bad. Now everyone's just like, "wait, does your friend Matt have a blog, because why am I wasting my time here? There wasn't even a single goddamn dinosaur in that post."

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emloeb
AUTHOR
February 11, 2013 at 9:46 AM delete

Yes.
And also, those misspelled tattoo sites are awesome!

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Drofnib
AUTHOR
February 11, 2013 at 12:11 PM delete

Martha Brockenbrough, Things That Make Us [Sic} (http://thingsthatmakeussic.com/)

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Drofnib
AUTHOR
February 11, 2013 at 12:12 PM delete

Dadgummit, I meant "[Sic]"

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Matt!
AUTHOR
February 13, 2013 at 3:26 PM delete

You were blogging when my blog was just a glint in Kurt Russell's eye.

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Anonymous
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July 4, 2014 at 7:18 PM delete

Like all forms of social interaction, or internal interaction, or for that matter your interaction with a pencil, the amount of attention exercised is elastic based on the balance between efficiency and precision. The balance operates on a scale of magnitude involving the expected consequences of a miscommunication. This why lawyers exist, to a degree, because of the complexity of contexts and scenarios that the comma in a code section has an effect upon. That comma is itself a compromise of precision and resources since we could expend more people and time and pages on directly addressing scenarios for even more contexts than we do already. Would such an expansion create a statistical decrease in the variable range of monetary stakes that hang upon the difference between a given "and" or "or"? Is that even a metric that, if measurable, would be a worthy end to the application of our legal machinations? I have no idea and I've also forgotten what I was talking about in the first place. Thanks. Anyway, your point about context being a driver of attentiveness towards admittedly arbitrary distinctions is well met. Sometimes the consequences of accuracy for a given communication necessitates greater effort towards avoiding a missed mark. So the rules can serve a real purpose of facilitating precision if we all know what the rules are. That's how language itself operates in the first place. What becomes annoying is when attention to the rules obstructs or overshadows the substance of a message, thus defeating their own purpose. What might get you hung up or annoyed on sloppy application of grammar is that you are accustomed to a given context where a relatively strict observance of grammatical rules is the norm. In that way, the use of grammar itself has become a method of communication to you with ingrained meanings. Like you said, a lack of mastery of a given set of rules for communication will result in a fuzzy message, but that does not mean that the originator or the idea itself is cloddish. Peace, dawg.

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